By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers will enter the ‘Black Hole’ on Sunday, not with 22 Hall of Famers, but with players that have a lot to prove in a rivalry that once defined the NFL in the 1970s. During Sunday’s meeting between the Steelers and Raiders, both teams will be trying to add a win to their 2-4 records.
Pittsburgh will be without tight end Richard Gordon and wide receiver Markus Wheaton. What head coach Mike Tomlin calls a “laundry list” of injuries has cleared up following this week’s practice sessions, resulting in 11 players being listed as ‘probable’, and they all had full practice on Friday except offensive guard Ramon Foster who has a thumb injury. Steelers backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski will return to Oakland, this time hoping the winning ways will turn in Pittsburgh’s favor as the game is sure to be a heated one.
Coach Tomlin gave the team a history lesson this week in anticipation of encouraging many of the younger players to look for play that helped the Steelers hurdle the Raiders in the past and not focus on the last four meetings between the two storied teams.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said, “I knew about the Immaculate Reception, but I didn’t know about the “Ice Bowl”…the “Criminal Element” game and stuff like that.” Regarding how players reacted to the information, Sanders said, “It kind of motivated guys to allow us to know that we have to go out [there] and bring our A game, just based off the history of the game.”
In five consecutive seasons (1972-76), the Steelers faced the Raiders in some of the roughest and physical football games in NFL history. It wasn’t uncommon for players to get ‘nasty’ and at times, downright ugly.
“You talk about mirror images as far as being hard-nosed and physical, those were the two teams,” said cornerback Ike Taylor. “To this day, there’s some bad blood between the organizations.” In three AFC title games (1974-76), Pittsburgh won the first two with the Raiders taking the third game.
The Steelers don’t have two 1,000-yard rushers like the ’76 team did in Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, but offensive coordinator Todd Haley is impressed by his corps of three: Le’Veon Bell, Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer.
“I am excited about all of our running backs right now,” said Haley. “I think [Jones] is chomping at the bit to get opportunities…[Dwyer] when he gets in there has done a good job.”
When asked about the ‘Wildcat’ situations the Steelers ran last week in their 19-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens, Haley said, “Obviously the operation and the ball handling was new, but we knew we had Felix Jones and Le’Veon Bell, both had some experience handling the football in a situation like that. It just gives you a little different look and another way to keep the defense off balance.”
Last weekend, Pittsburgh’s offensive line played its best game of the season. With Fernando Velasco proving to be an important keystone at center, the communication along the offensive front has improved impressively. Guy Whimper’s entry into the game had some Steelers fans worried, but overall did a good job.
Regarding the offensive line, Haley said, “We obviously need them to keep getting better, keep coming together and playing like that.” Marcus Gilbert insists his thigh is no longer bothering him, but Haley said that a coaching decision will be made by Tomlin before Gilbert is given a green light on Sunday.
The Steelers defense will be playing with some question marks as far as personnel. Linebacker Jarvis Jones is coming off of a concussion, Lawrence Timmons will be playing with a cast on his broken hand, LaMarr Woodley’s knee is bothering him and Brett Keisel has sore ribs. All are listed as ‘probable’. When asked about Timmons’ play against the Ravens despite the broken hand, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, “He’s a linebacker. Linebackers are tough.”
Safety Ryan Clark understands that the defense will face a hostile environment where Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor will be the next Oakland player trying to get the energy to flow for the black and silver.
“It’s a tough place to play,” said Taylor. “Once they get it rolling there and the fans get involved, it can get loud, it can get intimidating. So for us, it’s going to be important to start fast and try to jump out on them.”
LeBeau agreed that Pryor will be a challenge for the Steelers. “He’s like having another tailback in the game, really,” said LeBeau. And as far as Pryor’s speed, LeBeau added, “They’ve seen him on so many videos run away from people…I don’t think it’s any secret.”
The plan is to corral Pryor and contain the Raiders.
If the Raiders throw more three-receiver sets onto the field, the Steelers plan to utilize more defensive backs, similar to how they played the Ravens. Shamarko Thomas made a big difference for Pittsburgh last weekend, and LeBeau noticed.
“[Thomas will] play every snap if that’s what we get,” said LeBeau when asked if he’d play a similar defense against the Raiders. “He’s a young player, but I don’t worry about him when he’s in there.”
As for tackling and bringing down Oakland on Sunday, LeBeau finalized by saying, “Well, there are some games that I wish we tackled a little bit better in the secondary…We expect [the Steelers defensive players] to get the ball carrier on the ground, whether it’s their receiver that caught the ball or someone coming out of the backfield. I won’t be happy until they tackle them every damn time.”
OG Beachum, Kelvin (ribs)
WR Cotchery, Jerricho (abdomen)
OG Foster, Ramon (thumb)
OT Gilbert, Marcus (quadricep)
DE Heyward, Cameron (illness)
LB Jones, Jarvis (concussion)
DE Keisel, Brett (ribs)
TE Miller, Heath (not injury related)
LB Timmons, Lawrence (hand)
OLB Woodley, LaMarr (knee)
TE Gordon, Richard (toe)
WR Wheaton, Markus (finger)
For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on